The nib is the heart of the pen. It does not matter how well made and balanced the body is, how much ink the filling system holds, or how good the material looks if the writing experience is poor. Question is who should take responsibility and what are our expectations.
We are quick to criticise certain makers, such as Visconti, for their inconsistent nibs, yet they are far from being alone. Look at the forums and speak to owners and makers of other brands seem to do little better. Do not expect to buy a Montblanc or a Pelikan and have a perfect nib each time. Yet theses are brands who either make their own nibs else have one of the few third parties make them to their own specification. Should this not be applauded? Should we criticise those makers who just use off the shelf nibs, sometimes with their own branding, sometimes without, and are the results any better.
Does company size come in to it. Can we expect the small company or lone artisan to work on or with the nib, should we expect larger companies to either make their own or have their own specifications. What about nib checking, should every pen be tested before it goes out and does this always work.
What are the effects on our hobby of the pen being sold through a brick and mortar store or at a pen show. Potential customers try pens and could damage the nibs. How often does this happen and the store holder not realise. Net result is a pen that will go out to a new owner who will not be happy and will blame the maker. I actually had to warn someone to be more careful with a nib when I was helping Write Here at the 2021 Late Late London Spring Pen Show and was prepared to launch across the table to grab their wrist to prevent damage.
The reality is few pen makers produce their own nibs. Aurora, Cross, Lamy, Magna Carta, Montblanc, Parker, Pelikan, Pilot, Platinum, Sailor, Santini, and Waterman. I think that presently is it and yes two of those are small makers and while that list may seem to be long when you look at the industry as a whole, it is not. It takes a lot of time, skill and expense to do this. A few more have their own machinery, dyes, and alloy specifications but get one of the specialists to actually make the nibs, ScriBo, Pineider and Visconti come to mind with relation to this and they should not be thought of any less.
One question is how many test the nibs before the pens leave the workshops and factories. I would suspect not many. Lamy do by hand for all pens beyond a certain price point and you can watch videos of their automated machines for all others (this is why all new Lamy fountain pens have hints of blue ink on the tipping and entry to the feed), however this just covers the tipping, not the feed or tine gap, so the pen may write smoothly at that time, but it does not mean the ink will flow and if the tines are not quite aligned when the tipping is applied and tested then the natural memory of sprung steel may result in the metal moving back in to a natural position in time, resulting in a scratchy writing experience.
There are a number of smaller companies who do test the nibs. Franklin-Christoph offer nib tuning services in addition to their individual checks. Edison Pens are another, though it should be noted Franklin-Christoph employ full time nibmeisters and Brian Gray trained under a known nibmesiter before offering the service. This will add to the hidden costs of the pen and the tuning options also cost more, but then you are employing a specialist’s skills for the work.
I have already mentioned the risks of nibs being damaged by potential customers testing and then discarding. At a lower end and in a non specialist store this can be a bigger risk. Blister packs should alleviate this (though then you arguably have waste plastic) however how many of us remember the Lamy Safari/Al-Star carousels in certain book shops. I remember at one seeing the nib on virtually every fountain pen was sprung, one would hope due to clumsiness but it also could have been a troublesome kid or a malicious shopper. You just know some one will have bought a pen without thinking to check and then assumed it was the pen brand that was at fault.
I think price point is an area of excuse. The big companies can produce cheap pens as part of the budget of scale, however this is no excuse for a poor product and the reality is some of the cheapest ‘legitimate’ pens out there are great writers. Should the cheap clones, primarily but not exclusively out of China, always work out of the box. After all when a company cares little aside from pushing product out of the door then can you expect them to put effort in to the most important element. Traditionally this source can be really hit or miss, a big risk, problem is that quite a few people will get the bug through these and move on to legitimate pens in time … unless they have a bad experience.
I personally have the view that when you buy a fountain pen then it must work out of the box. I get frustrated by people on forums who hark on that tuning a nib is part of the ownership experience. No it is not. You do not buy a new car and expect you might have to play with the tuning to get it working properly. I part caveat the small/individual maker, but only because I know in advance they normally do not have the nib skills, and more importantly the ones I know will swap a bad nib for a free replacement without a second thought.